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What does ‘un-American’ mean?

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada has been engaged in a rhetorical battle with the Koch brothers, billionaire conservatives who lay out huge amounts of money for political committees that campaign against Democrats.

The Kochs (their father helped start the John Birch Society) have laid out money for political organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, to which the Nevada Legislature has been donating money for years) and Freedom Works, plus the tea party movement. In their business activities, they have also laid out additional millions to pay fines for corporate polluting. The two kinds of spending are not unrelated — they would surely like to turn the political clock back to the days when industry was less regulated and polluting was winked at.

Except for a run as a vice presidential candidate on a third party ticket, David and Charles Koch don’t run for public office. Their views probably could not withstand scrutiny in the political arena, so they try to achieve through their money what they cannot accomplish more directly and openly.

The Democrats have some money people of their own, such as labor unions and George Soros, but they cannot begin to compete with the business funding and personal funding that Republicans get. The Center for Responsive Politics says that in political money, “business interests dominate, with an overall advantage over organized labor of about 15 ­to ­1,” and in soft money the gap is even wider.

So Reid’s concern about the Kochs is understandable. Money thrown against the Democrats is so massive that he could lose his Senate majority. A Democratic candidate in this era must run one campaign against his or her opponent and try to cope against another campaign from all the business-­funded groups.

Independent groups supporting Democrats also operate, but they are like pebbles compared with the corporate boulders out there.

So Reid has been trying to throw a spotlight on the Kochs, who can fund entire campaigns and never miss the money. Moreover, their “issue” ads, such as television commercials attacking the federal health care program, can create the context in which Democrats must campaign.

After Reid denounced some Koch-­funded materials as lies, a spokesperson for the Kochs (they weren’t willing to speak for themselves) portrayed Reid as attacking a cancer patient who is featured in one Koch ad. He did no such thing, of course, but the claim stung.

Reid responded, “It’s time that the American people spoke out against this terrible dishonesty of these two brothers, who are about as un-­American as anyone that I can imagine.”

This is strong stuff, and ratchets up the heat of this political year a good deal.

Democrats have long opposed the use of the term “un-­American,” particularly during the McCarthy era. Does any citizen of this nation have the right to judge the citizenship of another?

The term is tossed around all the time, of course. “There’s something un-­American about forcing a bakery to bake a wedding cake for a couple they don’t like,” Pat Robertson said a few days ago. Current headlines I found for letters to the editor or commentaries include, “It feels un-­American to buy a foreign car,” “Schools that turn students into outcasts are un-­American,” “Pro-Israel bullying on college campuses is so un-­American” and “ ‘biblical’ governance would be un­American.”

But when it comes from one of the nation’s elected leaders, it heats up the poison in the political climate a good deal, just as the Kochs’ misleading television commercials do. Although the Kochs’ despoliation of the land in this nation does not show their respect for its physical territory, it’s unlikely that was what Reid was describing.

“All of us, from the wealthiest to the young children that I have seen in this country, in this year, bloated by starvation — we all share one precious possession, and that is the name American,” Robert Kennedy said. “It is not easy to know what that means.”

It’s not even certain that we do possess it. After all, Uruguayans, Costa Ricans, Canadians and many others are also Americans. And the resentment of South Americans in particular at the usurpation of the term by citizens of the United States has been recorded. When our leaders describe their messianic goal of spreading the “American way of life” across the globe, Americans in nations north and south of us must wonder what is wrong with their American way of life.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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